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THE SITUATION ROOM
U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Doubles In Three Days; FL Gov Reverses Course With New Stay-At-Home Order; W.H. Projects 100,000 To 240,000 Americans Could Die; Pence Casts Blame On CDC, China For Any Delay In U.S. Response; Documents Show Backlog Of 160,000 Tests At Just One Lab; Source: National Stockpile Deploying Last Round Of Protective Gear; Pence: We Think Italy Is Closest Comparison For U.S. Projections; U.S. Reports 835 New Deaths Today, Most In One Day; White House Coronavirus Task Force Briefing. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired April 1, 2020 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: One of those Americans is named Alex. He is in Peru and let's listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT KING, AMERICAN STRANDED IN PERU: And two or three weeks when his quarantine ends. Hopefully, when I'm -- whenever -- all the Americans here was there's six or seven Americans here now, I just want assurance that they'll still come get the last 0.01 percent of Americans stuck in Peru.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And thanks Kylie Atwood for that report. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're standing by to hear from experts on the White House Coronavirus Task Force officials in the U.S. announced 835 or more dead today. That's the deadliest of the pandemic today so far here in the United States. The U.S. death toll skyrocketing doubling in just three days. The virus has killed at least 4,600 people here in the United States, more than 210,000 have now been infected.
President Trump has dramatically shifted his outlook on the coronavirus outbreak, acknowledging now that the possibility that hundreds of thousands of Americans could die. Also today, a new stay- at-home order from the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had been reluctant to impose the most aggressive measures despite the accelerating death toll, and a very large number of vulnerable retirees who live in Florida. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Nick Watt. He's joining us with the late breaking developments. Nick, what's the latest? What are you hearing?
NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are at Dockweiler Beach here in Los Angeles today. There is an R.V. park behind me. This is as close as we are allowed to get because that park one of eight places now around Los Angeles designated for people to self-isolate or self- quarantine, if they don't have a home, or if they don't want to infect everybody else inside their home. Here in Los Angeles, we are just waiting, hoping that we do not become here in California the next New York.
WATT (voice-over): Doctors and families are now making life and death decisions.
DR. JASON SHATKIN, PHYSICIAN SPECIALISTS OF NORTHERN JERSEY: I recommended that they withdraw treatment because she was not going to get better. And that ventilator was sterilized and given to another patient,
WATT (voice-over): As those health care workers fear for their own futures.
SHATKIN: I have a four year old son, my greatest fear is that I'm going to be nothing more than a fleeting memory to him.
WATT (voice-over): In New York, nearly 8,000 new cases in a single day.
GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: What we're looking at now is the apex, top of the curve roughly at the end of April, which means another month of this.
DR. STEVEN MCDONALD, NEW YORK PRESBYTERIAN: Everyone requires oxygen. Everyone is borderline critical.
CUOMO: Look at us today. See yourself tomorrow.
CARLEY RICE, CRITICAL CARE NURSE, PHOEBE PUTNEY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: I didn't ever think that I would see this amount of deaths all at one time.
WATT (voice-over): Sunday nationwide, at least 383 died Monday, 575 yesterday, 830 was our deadliest day. Today, we've already passed that number. Current projections, at least 100,000 of us could perish.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our most recent modeling suggests that with strong mitigation, the range is still -- it's still heartbreaking.
WATT (voice-over): And some say inaccurate.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH & POLICY: This model assumes that like Wuhan, we're going to shut down all 50 states immediately and they'll stay shut down for the duration of however long into the next fall. That's not going to happen.
WATT (voice-over): Take Louisiana, right now a hotspot and running low on supplies.
STEPHEN RUSSO, INTERIM SECRETARY, LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Date for the end of beds is going to be around April 10th. Dates to the end of vents in the New Orleans region is going to be the 6th.
WATT (voice-over): They have a stay at home order in place, but some neighboring states do not.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: Why the President doesn't take action. You're just going to have to ask him about that.
WATT (voice-over): Florida just relented an issue to stay home order. Meanwhile, Broward County Commissioners debated five hours and still can't decide if they'll let the Zaandam cruise ship dock. Eight confirmed cases and around 190 with symptoms on board.
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: We're going to be willing to accept any Floridians who are on board. My understanding is that most of the passengers are foreign nationals. I think that they're working on ways to deal with that.
WATT (voice-over): Sundee Rutter, a breast cancer survivor and single mother has died, leaving six kids behind who could not hug her goodbye.
ELIJAH ROSS-RUTTER, MOTHER DIED OF COVID-19: They took a walkie-talkie and they placed the walkie-talkie right by her bedside, on the pillow.
I told her I loved her. I told her everything's going to be alright with the kids, you know, like us older siblings, we're going to make sure everything's OK with them and that they're going to grow up to be some adults that my mom would want them to be.
WATT: And we have just heard that Georgia and Mississippi have now also implemented stay-at-home orders throughout those states. The next question, of course, is how do you enforce that? Governor Cuomo in New York says he's going to need law enforcement to be more aggressive. And over in Hawaii, now, if you don't self-quarantine after traveling into the state or between the islands, the Governor says you are liable to a $5,000 fine, or up to a year in jail. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right. Nick Watt, with the very latest. Nick, thank you. We're expecting to hear from experts on the Coronavirus Task Force very shortly, standby for that.
But let's get the latest of the White House's response to the pandemic. Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us. So what are you learning, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House is trying to do some clean up to explain why the President was downplaying the coronavirus for weeks before the pandemic slammed the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to blame health administration or, excuse me, administration health experts, even China, but that does not really square with reality.
And despite these White House claims, that the President has done everything right so far, a source close to the Coronavirus Task Force told me earlier today, tougher social distancing measures implemented earlier on might have blunted the severity of the crisis. This source said quote, it might have made a difference.
ACOSTA (voice-over): No longer downplaying the coronavirus as he had for weeks, President Trump is warning of difficult days ahead.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We're going to go through a very tough two weeks.
ACOSTA (voice-over): In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the Coronavirus Task Force compare the crisis to the dire situation in Italy, which has been devastated by the virus.
PENCE: We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point.
ACOSTA (voice-over): But the White House is shifting the blame, pointing fingers at the Centers for Disease Control.
PENCE: I will be very candid with you and say that in mid January, the CDC was still assessing that the risk of the coronavirus to the American people was low.
ACOSTA (voice-over): But hold on. Back in January, a top CDC official said the U.S. should be gearing up for a pandemic.
DR. NANCY MESSONNIER, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR IMMUNIZATION AND RESPIRATORY DISEASES: We need to be preparing as if this is a pandemic. But I continue to hope that it is not.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Pence also accused China of not being transparent enough.
BLITZER: Didn't the United States as a whole get off to a late start?
PENCE: Well, the reality is that we could have been better off if China had been more forthcoming. I don't believe the President has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Tell that to the President who praised China's handling of the coronavirus back in February, and claimed the U.S. had it all under control.
TRUMP: I've spoken to President Xi and they're working very hard. And if you know anything about him, I think he'll be in pretty good shape. I think it's going to be under control. And I think I can speak for our country, for a country is under control.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Now, top officials are spreading the word that the extension of the nation's social distancing guidelines amounted to an order to every American to stay home.
DR. JEROME ADAMS, SURGEON GENERAL: My advice to America would be that these guidelines are a national stay at home order. They're guidelines that say, look, the more we social distance, the more we stay at home, the less spread of disease there will be.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The President has dismissed the notion that he gave Americans a false sense of security.
(on-camera): When you were saying things like it's going to go away --
TRUMP: Well it is.
ACOSTA (on-camera): -- and that sort of thing --
TRUMP: But Jim it's going --
ACOSTA (on-camera): But when you were saying --
TRUMP: It's going to go away hopefully at the end of the month, and if not, hopefully, we'll be seeing after that.
ACOSTA (on-camera): When you were saying this was --
TRUMP: I thought it could. I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible and I knew it could be maybe good.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Even as he's telling Americans they may want to wear scarves like masks if they go outside.
TRUMP: You can use a scarf, scarf is -- everybody -- a lot of people have scarves, and you can use a scarf. Scarf would be very good.
ACOSTA (voice-over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN she hopes the President finally gets it.
PELOSI: I pray that he does. I do think that the testing is essential. We'll never going to be able to know what the challenge is unless you had the testing.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Pelosi rejected the excuse floated by top Republicans that the President was somehow distracted by the impeachment saga, which ended nearly two months ago. Even as the President continued to hold rallies and play golf.
PELOSI: That's an admission that perhaps the President and the Majority Leader cannot handle the job. (END VIDEOTAPE)
ACOSTA: Now one thing we want to point out, the Vice President's office is pushing back on the notion that he was trying to point the blame at the CDC.
Spokesperson for Vice President Mike Pence said that the Vice President was not trying to blame public health officials. But, Wolf, it's very clear at this point at this hour, and we're coming up on 30 minutes until the coronavirus press briefing that the White House is trying to pretend that officials have been on the case from the very beginning and all of this, when of course, the reality is, they haven't. Wolf?
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House for us. Jim, thank you very much.
And as you heard, I spoke to the head of the Coronavirus Task Force earlier today, the Vice President Mike Pence. Here's more of my interview.
PENCE: I want everybody to know that we are taking this one American at a time. And I think if everybody takes the same view, and recognizes -- if all of us do all that we can to heed these guidelines, to listen to state and local authorities, we're not just going to bring numbers down, we're going to save lives and we're going to hasten the day that we put this behind us.
I mean, when you look at that curve yesterday, the most -- there are tough days ahead, and the President was straight with the American people about that. But I hope people look at what happens if all of us continue to do our part. And that is by sometime in early June, we could well have the coronavirus largely behind us as a nation, reopen our country, put America back to work.
BLITZER: And would 100,000 people, presumably, be dead by then in early June here in the United States, is that what you're saying?
PENCE: The time frame for the epidemic is a period of time where the number of losses becomes much lower by about Memorial Day weekend in June 1st. But I never want to minimize the loss. I just want to make sure people know there is light at the end of the tunnel. We can save lives between now and the summertime by putting these guidelines into practice, Wolf.
BLITZER: But why not do a national stay-at-home order. The Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says that that would carry a lot of weight in his state. You know, there's a lot of retirees in Florida. Why not just do that right now and get it over with for the whole country because people are moving around the country freely right now?
PENCE: Well, actually, I've been very inspired at the way -- over the last 15 days, people in states that have very little outbreak of coronavirus are still putting into practice the guidelines for America. And what I can promise your viewers is we're going to continue to bring the President the best recommendations based on real time data and science for what every state what every community should be doing.
But at the present moment, we truly do believe that the strong actions taken in places like California, and Washington, and New York and New Jersey are appropriate. We fully support those efforts. We're resourcing those efforts.
But for every American, heeding the travel advisory the President announced this weekend, and making sure that people in those areas of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, refrain from travel. And if people have traveled out of those areas, check your temperature and self-monitor for 14 days if you're somewhere else in the country.
BLITZER: Should regular Americans start wearing masks or scarfs or bandanas? Right now, we're getting a lot of confusing, conflicting advice on that.
PENCE: Well, I can tell you that the White House Coronavirus Task Force has a CDC looking at the issue of masks as a protective measure right now. It was a number of weeks ago the CDC did issue guidance that if you have the coronavirus, even if you're asymptomatic, one of the ways to protect others is to wear a mask. But right now, I've had them looking at the science, we'll have a recommendation for the President.
But every American should know that as you go out of doors, you're taking a walk, you're getting some exercise, as long as you keep six feet distance from anyone, you practice that social distancing, that we've been making clear over the last several weeks, that that will give as much protection as anything else. But we're looking at the issue of mass and we'll have -- on CDC's recommendation, we'll bring those recommendations to the President at the appropriate time.
BLITZER: Dr. Fauci now says there could be a second wave coming in the fall. Are we going to be -- are the American public going to be have to be living with this throughout the rest of this year, basically, these kinds of guidelines?
PENCE: Well, we believe that the likelihood is that just like the flu that the coronavirus will likely manifest again either in the fall or in the winter of next year.
For a broad range of reasons, new medications, a certain degree of immunity and the development of vaccines, as well as just good practices that I think the American people are going to continue forward. We think we'll be in a much, much better place in this fall or even in the years ahead if the coronavirus stays with us.
(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: I want to thank the Vice President for joining me earlier in the day. And to our viewers, stay with us. We're standing by for experts over at today's coronavirus briefing at the White House. You're looking at live pictures coming in.
Also ahead, despite assurances, the U.S. is wrapping up testing. There's exclusive documents that CNN has now obtained the (INAUDIBLE) backlog of 160,000 coronavirus test at just one lap. Standby for details.
BLITZER: We're awaiting for experts at the White House Coronavirus Task Force to speak at today's briefing. I will have coverage of that. Also today, while the Trump administration continues to tout the availability of desperately needed coronavirus tests, CNN has uncovered some very disturbing evidence of a huge backlog delaying thousands of results.
Let's bring in CNN's Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin. Tell us more, Drew.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: It's one of the biggest problems so far. You can take a test but if you can't process the test, what good is it? Is it just more evidence that testing continues to struggle to keep up with this pandemic?
TRUMP: We'll be doing --
GRIFFIN (voice-over): This was just two weeks ago.
TRUMP: And today we're announcing a new partnership with private sector to vastly increase and accelerate our capacity to test for the coronavirus.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Big commercial labs coming to the rescue of a floundering coronavirus testing plan. But within a week of the President's major Rose Garden announcement, internal documents obtained by CNN, from one of the nation's largest clinical laboratories expose huge backlogs. Results delayed up to 10 days and demand outstripping the labs ability to process tests.
Data from those documents show on March 25, last Wednesday, Quest diagnostics had 160,000 tests on backlog. Half of its total orders were waiting to be processed. And according to Quest data obtained by CNN, that backlog appeared to be growing by the day. Quest told CNN it can now do 30,000 tests a day and recently our capacity has exceeded our demand, allowing us to reduce the backlog.
Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker said the federal government has failed to produce millions of tests promised by the President. And now commercial labs can't process all the ones they do have. GOV. J.B. PRITZKER (D), ILLINOIS: In fact, their federal testing is slowed down because they throw it all at Lab Corp and Quest, and they've got a huge backlog. Those tests are coming back in four to 10 days.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): It's the latest in a series of problems that is crippling coronavirus testing in the United States. Two months into the crisis, and testing is still limited only to the sickest individuals in most places, limiting health experts and knowing exactly where the virus is spreading
DR. CAROLINE BUCKEE, HARVARD T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Right now, I don't think that we're at capacity for testing. So we just don't know how big the epidemic is or how big it's going to get.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Because of the backlog at Quest and other commercial labs, states and hospital systems tell CNN they have bypassed the logjam by starting to conduct their own in-house tests, which can turn around results in hours rather than days. Louisiana has turned to its state lab to more quickly turn around the test. But that's only for the most critical patience. All the rest, go to the backlog.
DR. JOSEPH KANTER, ER DOCTOR: It's gotten better, no question about that. But it is still a problem. The commercial labs have been challenging.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): The delays and getting test results back are straining limited supplies of personal protective equipment. Patients suspected of COVID-19 must be treated as if they are infected, requiring hospital workers to burn through gear waiting for results. In some cases. only to find out days later, they didn't need to.
KANTER: There's a direct relationship between the speed at which we can get results back for hospitalized patients and the amount of PPE that is going to be expended in their care.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): The result of the limited testing and now huge backlogs is most of us are not going to get a test even if we are sick. And yes, that even includes nurses on the front lines.
MEGAN SCHLANSER, NURSE, METRO DETROIT, MICHIGAN: We're not getting tested as healthcare providers. We are -- you know, I've had a couple of friends who have said, you know, I feel like I'm getting sick and employee health will say, you know, we don't have enough tests, you haven't fit all the criteria that, you know, we have in place so you're not getting tested.
GRIFFIN: And Wolf, one thing I want to point out as we head into yet another one of these press conferences by the task force, they rolled out a number yesterday saying 100,000 tests a day were being performed. I bandied about that with several experts today who say 100,000 tests a day is nowhere near the number we need to achieve to get ahead of this virus. They would hope to see that tenfold. Wolf? BLITZER: All right, that's significant indeed. All right, Drew Griffin, good reporting as usual. Thank you very much.
We're joined now by two mayors in cities that hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami and Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit.
Mayors, thank you to both of you. I know you're incredibly busy, but we're grateful to you for joining us. Mayor Suarez, in your state of Florida, the Governor today, Ron DeSantis, finally reversed course and issued a statewide stay-at-home order that will take effect tomorrow night. Do you worry, though, that this action is simply coming too late?
MAYOR FRANCIS SUAREZ (R), MIAMI, FL: Well, I'm glad that it came. We were the first city -- one of the first cities in Florida to issue a stay-at-home order in the city of Miami. We were the first city to implement a curfew. I was the first Mayor to cancel large events. So I think the state stay-at-home order is absolutely welcome. We're thankful that the Governor did that.
The next thing we have to address is our airport where 50 million passengers a year travel to the city of Miami or through the city of Miami. And that is a tremendous point of vulnerability, particularly from other cities where there may be hotspots or outbreaks. They may want to travel to the city of Miami.
BLITZER: You want to shut down the airport?
SUAREZ: We need to look at the possibility of shutting down the airport. We are -- have already shut it down for international travel, but certainly from places that are hotspots.
BLITZER: Mayor Duggan, Michigan is also emerging as one of the hotspots of this virus. We're already hearing reports that some hospitals in your city are in desperate need right now of critical supplies. What's the latest information you're getting?
MAYOR MIKE DUGGAN (D), DETROIT, MI: Yes. Well, we're up to upwards of 9,000 people in Michigan have tested positive and as your story just indicated, that we're only testing a small percentage. Big issue is that you can't get the health workers or the police officers back fast enough because once they've been exposed, you don't want them working until you get a test result. But I'm very pleased with the fact that tomorrow will be the first city that will go live with the Abbott Lab 15-minute test.
And they've just shipped us five machines. We're going to be able to put cops and ultimately, healthcare workers through a test where you get a result back in 15 minutes. When that's widespread, then we'll really have the tools to fight this thing.
BLITZER: How accurate is that 15-minute test? DUGGAN: They tell me it's extremely accurate. And unlike the Quest test and a number of the others, that it will pick up accurately whether you have it well before the symptoms. And right now, most of the tests we have are really not 90 percent accurate until the symptoms have shown themselves.
BLITZER: Well, that's encouraging. Mayor Suarez, what steps are you taking in Miami right now to brace for a surge there?
SUAREZ: Well, we've also opened up a new testing site in the northern part of the city. We're testing hundreds of people every single day. We've been communicating continually with our hospital system to make sure that they have sufficient beds, sufficient ventilators. We've actually collaborated with other regional governments to set up hospital sites that are off site, you know, and create a greater bed capacity. So we're doing everything we can to brace for the worst.
BLITZER: You know, Mayor Duggan, I want you -- and Mayor Suarez, both to react to -- there's breaking news we're getting here, very disturbing information that the Strategic National Stockpile is deploying what's being described now as the last, the last round of shipments in its inventory depleting the bulk of its protective gear, that according to a source familiar with what's going on. Mayor Duggan, let me get your reaction to that first.
DUGGAN: It doesn't surprise me. I could write a book and what we had to do to get swabs to run our test kits and we're now running a huge drive-through site at the former State Fairgrounds. But we've had to source swabs from another number of places.
Now we're getting them the swabs, and the test kits from Chicago. We've got -- I mean, from China, actually, protective gear from all over. And I think most governors and large city mayors are doing that. We're staying five days ahead of the curve, but if this spreads to the point where it's not six or seven states that are hotspots, but 15 or 20 states, the problem is going to get worse.
BLITZER: Well, Mayor Suarez, what's your reaction?
SUAREZ: I agree with Mayor Duggan. You know, our fire chief identified this threat very early on when it was still in Wuhan during the Super Bowl, and ordered personal protective equipment for our men and women, first responders. And so we have a very good stock there. What worries me and concerns me more is what we've seen happen in Italy and what we're seeing happen in New York, where there's -- where there isn't sufficient capacity not just for beds and ventilators but for PPEs, for our first responders.
They're the ones that are on the frontlines. They're the ones that are taking the major risks, and we need them, frankly, to take care of our residents. So the concern is over time right now we feel good about where we are. But obviously we want to prevent ourselves from becoming another hotspot.
BLITZER: I know both of you have to run, but very quickly, Mayor Suarez, how are you doing right now? [17:30:00]
I know you're recovering from the coronavirus yourself.
SUAREZ: I'm doing well, on my second outside of quarantine. I finally got an opportunity to hug my children and kiss my wife, which was, you know, something that I was sorely missing after 18 days in quarantine. But, you know, it is tough to start the month this way. You know, a lot of tough times ahead of us as Americans and as Miami.
BLITZER: Well, we're happy you're OK. We're happy for your family and for all your constituents as well. To both of the mayors, thank you very much for joining us. I know these are extremely difficult days for all of you and for all of us as well.
And to our viewers, stay with us. We're waiting for experts over at the White House Coronavirus Task Force to speak at today's briefing, we'll have coverage.
BLITZER: All right. We're joined now by our experts as we wait for members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force to speak at today's briefing. And Dr. Lee, I want to start with you. We've just received the news that the National Strategic Stockpile has sent out what's being described as his last supplies of personal protective gear. Do you believe this could have been prevented?
DR. JENNIFER LEE, EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: Well, I think that we need to take a different approach to this. That's very concerning to hear. And I think that what we should do is take a look at what countries like Taiwan did. You know, for example, let's take face masks. You know, Taiwan faced a similar issue as we did with on the issue of face masks.
They, before this outbreak, had over 90 percent of the face masks that were sold in Taiwan were produced overseas, mostly from China, like us, and when the supply chain was disrupted because of the corona virus outbreak, they did a few things.
First, they stopped all exports immediately. Second, the government required private sector manufacturers to work 24/7 to massively scale up their production of their face masks. They went from somewhere around 3 million facemasks a day to now over 13 million per day. Such that they've met all the needs of their health care workers.
And finally, the government stepped in and created a system to make sure that these were not be overpriced and to ration them so that every single member of the public, in fact, in addition to the health care workers getting what they needed, the public could get surgical face masks, up to three of them a week, at less than a quarter per mask. So the federal government really needs to step in and take a different approach here. BLITZER: They're going to learn some lessons. And obviously the big plenty of time for that after this current crisis is over. You know, Sanjay, in my interview with the Vice President earlier today, he said Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States as far as what's going on right now. We're seeing horrific images, of course, coming out in Italy. Do you agree that what's been happening in Italy is coming here?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, maybe, Wolf. I mean, obviously, it's tough to imagine some of what had happened in Italy in the last few weeks. I mean, you sort of remember, I mean, it was sort of, I think, February 20th, 21st timeframe where they had their first case and even for a couple of weeks after that, there wasn't much action taken. You know, there was a sort of --
BLITZER: Sanjay, I'm going to interrupt you for a moment. The Defense Secretary Mark Esper is speaking at the White House briefing.
MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SPEAKER: At a time when the nation and the Department of Defense are focused on protecting the American people from the spread of the coronavirus, we also remain vigilant to the many other threats our country faces. Today, at the President's direction, the Department of Defense in close cooperation with our interagency partners, began enhanced counternarcotics operations in Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This initiative is part of the administration's whole of government approach to combating the flow of illicit drugs into the United States and protecting the American people from their scourge.
I want to thank all of our partners in this effort to include the United States Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Justice, and members of the intelligence community for their tremendous support and cooperation. To conduct these enhanced operations, the President has directed the deployment of additional ships, aircraft and security forces to the United States Southern Command area of responsibility. Included in this force package are Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, Coast Guard Cutters, P.A. patrol aircraft and elements of an Army security force assistance brigade. These additional forces will nearly double our capacity to conduct counternarcotics operations in the region.
Additionally, 22 partner nations have joined us in this fight, bring with them a variety of intelligence and operations capabilities needed to defeat these criminal organizations. Last year alone, United States Southern Command's operations resulted in the seizure of over 280 metric tons of drugs, much of which was designated for shipment to America. While this was an incredible achievement, there's much more work to be done.
Transnational criminal organizations continue to threaten our security by smuggling cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamines and other narcotics across our borders. These drug traffickers put our communities at risk and destroy lives.
[17:40:15] Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdose, and thousands more suffer the harmful effects of addiction. Furthermore, corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power. The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro's criminal control over the country.
Drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness by increasing their illicit activities. We must do more to prevent these drugs from arriving at our shores. These enhanced counter narcotics operations that are now underway will further disrupt the flow of illicit drugs to America, deny our adversaries the financial resources they depend on and build the capacity of our partner nations throughout the region.
I want to thank President Trump for his leadership and support to this critical mission. This is particularly important time for this operation to begin. As nations around the world shift their focus inward to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, many criminal organizations are attempting to capitalize on this crisis. The enhanced operations we are announcing today will keep the pressure on these criminal groups and protect the American people from the devastation caused by the flow of illegal drugs into our country.
Mr. President, thank you for your leadership as we begin this important operation. While the men and women of the United States military work hard here at home to fight the coronavirus, we continue to take action around the world to defend our great country. Thank you and I'd like to invite General Milley.
BLITZER: We'll continue to monitor the briefing. That was an important statement on enhanced counternarcotics operations that the Department of Defense, the U.S. military is about to engage in, but it's not directly related clearly to what's going on as far as the coronavirus pandemic is concerned. We'll continue to monitor that briefing.
But Sanjay, I interrupted you as we were talking about the horrific images coming out of Italy. And the Vice President telling me earlier in the day that what we've seen in Italy could wind up right here in the United States.
GUPTA: Well, you know, I mean, you know, first of all, there is a little bit of good news perhaps coming out of Italy now, in that, you know, you're starting to see a decrease in the pace at which the new infections have been growing over there. The tough news, obviously out of Italy is that, you know, the fatality rate is hovering around 10 percent. It's always tough to make sense of these numbers, Wolf. I mean, the numbers are -- they bounce all over the place.
And, as you know, you know, if you don't do adequate enough testing, what happens is you miss a lot of people who may have the infection, but, you know, didn't end up in the hospital, didn't even maybe get that sick. And if that's the case, which is likely the case in Italy, then the fatality rate will drop, you know, so it'll be likely lower than 10 percent. But, yes, I think that the concern is that the -- I think slowness to react initially. And the fact that the virus spread during that time and can spread really, you know, robustly -- one person can spread it to two or three people is of concern. I think we sort of parallel Italy that way, the idea that hospitals became overwhelmed.
I mean, that is what people are now anticipating, as you as you well know, Wolf, I mean, maybe in some hotspots more than others. But if you look at several places around the country, the curve of cases, a curve of infections is in some ways mirroring those hotspots, maybe earlier in the curve, but still mirroring that.
So I think Italy is a maybe an example, a cautionary example of what could come here. I do think that these stay-at-home orders will make a difference. The question is going to be how big a difference and did they come to soon enough in some of these places? Obviously, I think what 80 percent, 90 percent of the country now is under stay at home sort of recommendations.
We all affect each other, Wolf. So places, you know, if there's cities, big cities within states that don't have stay-at-home orders, then even those cities are still going to be affected because the surrounding areas are not complying yet. So I worry about Italy. I am glad we're doing some of the things we're doing. I just worry if the timing has been too late here or not early enough, at least.
BLITZER: Yes, that's an important point data. Gloria, when I asked the Vice President earlier in the day why it took so long to grasp the severity of this pandemic, the Vice President pointed -- seem to point the finger at the CDC and China, even said it took Dr. Deborah Birx until Friday to give them the latest modeling on the death toll 100,000, 240,000. You wrote about this on CNN.com. What do you make of that kind of spin?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's absurd. I think it's spin. That's exactly what it is. And if the President wasn't aware of the modeling, why was Sanjay Gupta aware? Why were a lot of doctors that we've interviewed on our air aware? Why were scientists all across the country aware of the modeling?
This is something that was not kept a secret. It was published. And that's because, as Sanjay, was alluding to before, the administration does have a timing problem. You want to compare the United States to Italy, in the sense that we got started late and I refer you to back sort of to the end of February when the President was at a campaign rally and was complaining about Democrats overreacting, according to him to the coronavirus. He called it, their new hoax.
And I've got a list of things. You know, January, the President was saying this is totally under control. February 10th, we're in great shape, February 26, we're going down and not up and March 10th saying, just stay calm, it will all go away. Well, that hasn't happened. And if the President wasn't aware of the modeling, as the Vice President says, I think we can all ask why. BLITZER: It's a good question. You know, Dr. Lee, the Vice President didn't provide a lot of clarity on whether we'll all be getting updated recommendations on whether or not we should simply put on masks when we go outside. But what do you think people should be doing when they, for example, go to the grocery store or the pharmacy? Should we all start wearing masks or bandanas, scarves to protect ourselves?
LEE: So, Wolf, I personally do think we should. And to be clear, these are not the N95 respirators. The public does not need to wear those to go to the grocery store. But I looked into this because so many of my friends and relatives in Asia kept contacting us and saying, why aren't you wearing masks? Don't you know this is a respiratory virus?
So I started looking into it, and I think there's really, you know, two parts to this. It's one, you know, what is the science tell us about wearing masks in public? And two, the shortage question. And I think those have become kind of intermingled in the guidance.
But if we look at the science, you know, from the beginning, the CDC has said all along, that if you are sick, you should wear a mask. And I think now, as we found more -- learned more about COVID-19, what we've learned is that at least 25 percent or maybe more of infected people may not have any symptoms. And so if you don't know that you are sick, how can you know to wear a mask when you're out in public?
So I think that's one new piece of information that are used towards the public wearing masks when they're out in public. And then I've looked into some of the research that from the bases for the guidelines, and a lot of the research was done on influenza. And we know now that the novel coronavirus is very different from the flu. It's more contagious than the flu, it's more deadly than the flu.
And the studies that I looked at show that, you know, the novel coronavirus is most like the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak back in 2003. And there's some pretty good studies that show that people in Hong Kong or Beijing if they wore a mask, every time they were out in public, that it did lower their risk of getting infected compared to those who did not wear a mask. So then the question becomes, where do you get a mask?
Again, these are not the N95s that the public needs, but one of those surgical face masks would be ideal. Of course, we have a shortage of those. I hope that the federal government will act to address that, like countries like Taiwan did. But in the meantime, the experiments to show that wearing a cloth mask, a homemade mask is definitely better than nothing.
BLITZER: That's an important point indeed. And it looks like the CDC is coming around to that decision as well. And even if you're infected with coronavirus but have absolutely no symptoms at all, you don't even know you have it, you can still pass it on to others. If you're wearing a mask, that might not necessarily happen.
Everybody stick around. We have a lot more on all the coverage. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: All right. The President is now about to start answering questions were told at this Coronavirus Task Force briefing. Although so far, they've been talking about a new narcotics, counternarcotics operation that's unfolding. Let's listen in.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mark, just give him a little bit of an answer to that. But we just want to see if we can stop a big -- a good percentage of the drugs coming into our country.
ESPER: Sure thing, thanks, Mr. President. So first of all, it's simply a matter of prioritization. The President's giving us very clear guidance on what's important to him in protecting the American people. And as some of you know, I began to review months ago looking at all our different geographic combatant commands and looking at where we can free up time, money and resources to put into other endeavors.
In this case, we had scrutinized our inventory fairly closely that Chairman Milley did a great deal of work on this with Admiral Gilday, and we felt that there was no risk to the fleet to our operations to free up, in this case, Naval ships. We also freed up aircraft and other assets to apply them to this presidential priority. And of course, the Coast Guard did the same. So it was a very good operation. We feel this is very important to the American people and completely in line with the President's direction.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And how long will you be able to keep up this operational tempo?
ESPER: Well, it depends. What we're going to do is we're going to write it for some amount of time. I'm not going to disclose how long it will be and then we will assess it. And then we will make adjustments from there. We may increase, we may decrease, we may sustain as is. But this will be an assessment we will do as interagency team. We will report back to the President and we will take further guidance from there.
TRUMP: And, you know, we didn't do it for this reason, but it will also have an impact on the virus because we have people trying to get in. So not only drugs, but now we have a new phenomena. And that's at least for the next, hopefully, short period of time, the virus, so we'll be able to have an impact on that too. Please.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Mr. President, could you expand on that a little bit because you tie it to COVID-19, saying that these drug cartels were taking advantage of the situation of this pandemic. How exactly --
TRUMP: Well, because we're focused on so many other parts of the country and even parts of the world. And all of a sudden, areas where we had it clamped down pretty tight, in all fairness, you know, the wall is up to about 160 miles already. And any areas where we have that wall, it's for the most part contiguous, we have fillings, but we're up to 161 miles exactly.
And any place where you have that wall, other than walking around it on the edges, it's stopping everybody cold. I mean, we're stopping when -- nobody's seen anything like it, that's how good it works. And the other side knew it work that well. Everybody, because everybody was for it five years ago, all of a sudden, they changed.
It's having a tremendous impact. But we are now focused on so many different things because of what's happened, because of this horrible, I say it's a horrible phenomena that now we've got to focus on drugs and the drugs come in from different methods and we have the best people that see anywhere in the world. So we'll have a tremendous impact on drugs. But one of the other things, we'll also have an impact we think on the on the virus, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ambassador O'Brien, did China under report both the number of cases and the death toll from the coronavirus? And if that's the case, Mr. President, what does that mean for our relationship with China and your relationship with President Xi?
ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, number one, I think the President has a great relationship with President Xi. And we'd like to have a great relationship with China. Unfortunately, we're just not in a position to confirm any of the numbers that are coming out of China. There's no way to confirm any of those numbers. There's lots of public reporting on whether the numbers are too low.
You've got access to those reports that are coming out of Chinese social media and some of the few reporters that are left in China. We just have no way to confirm any of those numbers. Thank you.
TRUMP: We really don't know. Yes. How do we know whether they under reported or reported however they report. But we had a great call the other night. We're working together on a lot of different things including trade. They're buying a lot, they're spending a lot of money and they're giving it to our farmers. They're paying our farmers for the product. So, you know, we're going to continue that along.
John (ph), yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have another one, sir. You tweeted earlier today that there was -- you have uncovered intelligence that there is a sneak attack being planned against American troops, America assets in Iraq. Are we talking about Kataib Hezbollah again? I'll also --
TRUMP: I know what you're saying, but we just have information that they were planning something and it's very good information. It was led by Iran, not necessarily Iran, but by groups supported by Iran, but that to me is Iran. And we're just saying, don't do it, don't do it. It would be a very bad thing for them if they did it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last time they did do it in early March at Camp Taji, there was a response from the military against Kataib Hezbollah alone, your tweets --
TRUMP: I had a very powerful response by the way, that response knocked out five different places, but it also took out a lot of very bad people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your tweets seem to suggest though that if it happens again, it may go up the food chain.
TRUMP: Well, that was a very big response, you know, we knocked out a lot. We looked at -- they had one side, we hit five big ones and ammunition sites. You saw what happened, and I won't say how many people were killed, but some bad people were killed and a lot of them. That was a big response. But this response will be bigger, if they do something. Yes, and you had one, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, thank you, Mr. President. Just going back to your conversation with President Xi, wondering if you received an intelligence report that talked about the discrepancy in the numbers. And if you addressed that with --
TRUMP: We have not received that, but their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side and I'm being nice when I say that, relative to what we witnessed and what was reported. But we discussed that with him, not so much the numbers, as what they did and how they're doing. And we're in constant communication with the -- I mean, I would say the biggest communication is myself and President Xi. The relationship's very good.
We have -- look, they will be spending when things even out, this is obviously a little bit of a hurdle what's happened over the last month, but they'll be spending $250 billion buying our product, $50 billion to the farmers alone, $200 billion to other things. They never did that before. So we have a great trade deal and we'd like to keep it. They'd like to keep it and the relationship is good. As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, I'm not an accountant from China.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) things at all in terms of the trade deals?
TRUMP: No, because people just don't know. People don't know. Where did it come from? I think we all understand where it came from and President Xi understands that and we don't have to make a big deal out of it. We didn't like the fact that they said it came from our soldiers and they haven't pursued that. That was -- And that was a mid-level person said that, that was not a high level person. So I assume -- I will always assume the best. I'll assume the high level people didn't know about it.
It was a foolish statement. So look, the relationship with China is a good one and my relationship with him is, you know, really good. Please.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I follow up just on that point on Chinese propaganda that you mentioned as well as an Ambassador O'Brien. So in the past several weeks, China has been shipping PPEs, you know, masks. They've either been selling or donating everywhere, Africa, Europe, Italy, Russia, and really pushing this narrative that they're taking on a global leadership role in the crisis. So what are your thoughts on that and is there any plan for your administration to take on that role?
TRUMP: Yes. I feel that is a positive if they're helping other countries. We have 151 countries right now that are under siege by the virus, under siege. Some are doing really badly, you know, they don't know about social distancing. These are countries that aren't highly sophisticated. They don't have great communication to the rest of the world. I mean, they don't know the things that we're doing and that some others are able to do.
And if China can help them, I'm all for it. I'm for all of us helping everybody. We're soon going to have more ventilators than we need. We're building thousands of ventilators right now. Now, it takes a period of time to build them. And again, nobody could have known a thing like this could happen. We're building thousands.
We will fairly soon be at a point where we have far more than we can use.